Asking the Impossible

Heritage Presbyterian Church

September 13, 2020
15th Sunday After Pentecost
Scripture reading – Matthew 18: 21-35 (forgiving 77 times)

Reading over today’s Scriptures might lend any preacher to begin a sermon series titled, “Jesus…You’ve GOT To Be Kidding.”  In it, you might include topical sermons such:

  • “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.”


  • When the Apostles came to Jesus to tell him that the crowd of 5000 was hungry, Jesus told them, “You give them something to eat.”


  • Jesus walking on water and telling Peter to join him in this watery stroll.

In each case, Jesus did or said something extraordinary that would lend any believer – no matter how faithful – to at least mutter, “Jesus…you have GOT to be kidding!”

Yet, we all uncomfortably know that Jesus is not kidding.  But neither is Jesus being literal either.  

Any Christian struggles in getting along graciously with others.  We are called into communities of faith, and that always includes getting along with others of faith, others who are also followers of Jesus Christ, the same Lord that we worship.  But the daily irritations, perceived slights, sarcastic unthinking words, misunderstood attitudes, and – everybody’s favorite – those opinions that we disagree with STRONGLY get in the way of that gracious getting along with others.   Then throw in Covid-19 and masks and virtual learning and social distancing – and we all have a recipe for not forgiving! 

Often, it interferes with our thinking, our lives, and especially the way in which others perceive what kind of people we are and how we follow the Carpenter from Galilee.

Living in any community, any family as Christians do, requires a strength of character and strength of faith that many of us can only aspire to.  We may live and forgive and “go placidly amid the noise and haste” as the old saying begins.  We may recognize that we often fall well short of the attitude and spirit that the Lord wants for all of us.  We may cling fiercely to the backbone of our faith, namely that Jesus forgives those who believe in him and confess that he is Lord.  Most of us hold to that backbone because the daily struggle of getting along with others is just that – a struggle!

So we cringe when we read or hear today’s Scriptural instructions, asked by Peter and answered by the Lord.  But what is it that Jesus said and meant?

We have his words – forgive 77 times.  No getting around those specific words, no matter what language you read or translate it from.  77 times is what Jesus told Peter – and tells us now.

I believe that what Jesus actually meant was that we should not even keep count of forgiving.  We should just do it: easily, often, and accountably.  Being merciful to one another is what really matters to God.  If you are not certain of this, pay close attention to one part of the parable of the unforgiving servant that we heard today.

In it, the servant finds himself in big trouble with the King.  He can never hope to repay the huge sum of money that he owes and he knows it.  His only chance is to throw himself on the King’s mercy.  And then what happens?  Predictably, the King not only forgives the servant, but the debt is completely wiped out. 

But then the servant refuses to show mercy to another servant who owes a small sum of money. Instead of following the King’s example, the first servant has the second servant thrown into jail until the debt can be paid – which is never, because when you are in jail, you can’t repay a debt.

When the King is told of the lack of mercy from the first servant, he reverses his original order and has the first servant thrown in jail – and turned over to the torturers.  In case you missed this point, think about it for a moment:

  • He can never hope to repay his debt.
  • He will die in that jail.
  • He will be tortured every single day until he dies.

And one more little detail, as if we don’t have enough already: the Greek word for “torturers” only appears one time in the entire New Testament, and it is in this passage.

Does that tell you just how serious the Lord is about mercy?

Not only should we forgive and forgive and forgive until it almost becomes our habit, imagine in forgiving 77 times, we feel like it’s nothing because of the joy we should feel at being forgiven by our Lord!

To examine this more practically, let’s hear two stories of forgiveness, both of them extremely different.

The old, old lady was in her room at the retirement home where she lived.  Suddenly, she saw a vision in which Jesus came into her room, sat in her rocking chair next to her, and looked at her.  Then the Lord said, “Bettie, get your affairs in order… you don’t have much time.”  Then the Lord disappeared from her sight.  She was so shaken that she phoned her favorite niece and asked if she and her husband could come and see her as soon as possible. The niece and her husband got in their car and drove 30 miles to the retirement home to see what had happened.

When they entered the room, they found their beloved elderly aunt greatly agitated.  The old lady related the story of Jesus and his brief visit with her.  Then the old lady said, “What do you think I should do?”  The niece and her husband looked at one another and said, “I think you need to do whatever Jesus told you.”

After they left, the old lady sat and thought long and hard.  Then she made a phone call that she had not made for several years.  It was to her daughter-in-law.  She apologized for the years of not reaching out to her and for the distance that had existed between them.  She asked for her daughter-in-law’s forgiveness, which was quickly granted.  Within a few days, the old lady had many, many visitors from various family members who had avoided her because of the possible wrath from the daughter-in-law.  Over the last few months of her life, the old lady received regular, joyful visits from her family – and discovered that any hard feelings she had once held onto were completely gone.

When this sainted woman – my great-great Aunt Bettie –  died at the age of 101 and a half, she was truly at peace when she got to meet her Savior again.

The second one involves a hard-working man whose career was almost ruined by a vengeful boss.

This man worked at the junior college level – what we call community college today.  His dream was to one day become either the dean or possibly even the president of a junior college.  He worked really hard, acquired the proper advanced degrees in the right programs.  He worked a few jobs that allowed him to become even better trained in his specialty, and finally he was rewarded for all his hard work with a job as the associate dean at a program in Galveston.  Finally, he was at the threshold of his dream job and his dream career.

Unfortunately, what this hard-working man did not know was that his highly placed boss, the dean of the program, was a man who was extremely difficult to work with.  The hard-working man never knew of the dozens of people who had crossed this dean’s path over the years, who had disagreements with him, and then had their own career paths completely ruined.

The hard-working man found this out much too late.  

When he had finally had enough, he went to the dean and resigned.  He took a job out of state, at a lower level than being the associate dean, but still with a good chance for advancement.  That’s when the hard-working man found out the trouble he was still in.

Over the next few years, despite a resume and training that put him at the top of his craft, he was routinely turned down for multiple jobs all around the country.  He would hear of a opening, he would apply, he would go to an interview in which the deans and staffs were extremely impressed with him and told him he had a good chance of being hired…and then…nothing.  This happened over and over and over again.

Finally, the man was hired by the federal government to work in Washington D.C.  He stayed in the government for the rest of his career and retired to become a realtor – not anywhere near the future he had planned for and worked so hard for.

During the early years of that federal job, he was advised by a friend to investigate his lack of hiring through the Freedom of Information Act.  This would give him access to his permanent files in the various junior colleges and programs that he had worked for.  He wondered if he might find something.

He certainly did.  He found a scathing letter from his old boss, that difficult Dean, describing what a terrible worker this hard-working man was, how hard he was to get along with, and how he had never amounted to anything in that field.  The hard-working man was stunned…but later realized that this action answered all his questions.  Because of one boss and one letter, his career had ended prematurely.

You have to wonder if this broke this guy…you have to wonder what you would do in that situation…you have to wonder how difficult it would be to forgive.

And yet I can report that the hard-working man did just that.  When he died at the age of 91, my dad told me he was at peace and had made his peace with everything.  Although he and I were not close in the last several years, I remember being very happy that my dad achieved this peace before meeting his Lord.

In conclusion, let us all remember something amazing; forgiveness is in the very nature of God.  It is in God’s amazing power and God’s amazing choice to give mercy or condemnation. 

He leans toward mercy because of his great love for us.  

Seems to me that we should do the same because of our love for the Lord and for one another.